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. . . unfortunately there are no data for the Very Beginning. . . . Only God knows what happened at the Very Beginning (and so far She hasn't let on).
-Leon Lederman

Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

Judaism, Neuroscience and the Free Will Hypothesis (Part 2)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 @ 12:03 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: DARPA

The Jewish assumption of free will is ancient and enduring. But what does modern neuroscience have to say?

The history of neuroscientists’ efforts to explore the free will phenomenon was reviewed in 2016 by philosopher and neuroethicist Andrea Lavazza in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The setting for our current understanding was drawn a half century ago with the discovery by Hans Kornhuber and Luder Deecke of the Readiness Potential (“RP”), a measurement of increased bio-electric activity in the brain. The RP was measured by an electroencephalogram  (“EEG”), a procedure in which electrodes were placed on a subject’s scalp to allow for the recording of bio-electric activity. This activity was seen as an indication of preparation for a volitional act.

One question raised by the discovery of RP was whether an individual was conscious of an intention to act before RP appeared. In the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who became a neuroscientist at the University of California-Davis, sought to answer that question. Libet and his team designed a relatively simple test. First, subjects were wired for an EEG. To record muscle contraction, electrodes were also placed on subjects’ fingers. Then the subjects were asked to do two things, spontaneously move their right finger or wrist, and, with the aid of a clock in front of them, report to researchers the time they thought they decided to do so.

What Libet found (Libet et al. 1983) was that conscious awareness of the decision to move a finger preceded the actual movement of the finger by 200 milliseconds (ms), but also that RP was evident 350 ms before such consciousness. While Libet recognized that his observations had “profound implications for the nature of free will, for individual responsibility and guilt,” his report appropriately contained several caveats. First, it noted (at 640) that the “present evidence for the unconscious initiation of a voluntary act of course applies to one very limited form of such acts.” Second (at 641), it allowed for the possibility that there could be a “conscious ‘veto’ that aborts the performance . . . (of) the self-initiated act under study here.” Finally (at 641), it acknowledged that “the possibilities for conscious initiation and control” in situations that were not spontaneous or quickly performed. read more

Judaism, Neuroscience and the Free Will Hypothesis (Part 1)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 @ 05:03 PM
posted by Roger Price

Forget Moses’s impassioned plea to the Israelites concerning their choices among the many blessings and curses that God reportedly set before them as they were about to cross the Jordan river into their promised land. (See Deut.  11:26-28, 30:15, 19.) Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne claims we have no ability to choose freely among alternatives. According to Coyne, “we couldn’t have had that V8, and Robert Frost couldn’t have taken the other road.” Presumably, the Israelites in the story had not much choice either.

Coyne argues that the free will we sense when we make a decision, the feeling that we are choosing among available alternatives, does not exist. In reality, he contends, our conduct is predetermined by physics. This result follows, he says, because our brains and bodies, the “vehicles that make ‘choices,’ are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by (our) genes and (our) environment.” The decisions we think we make are, in his opinion, merely “the result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another.” read more

When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 2)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 @ 01:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

 

That the age of robots is coming, and soon, seems indisputable.  For some, though, achievements to date in mobility, dexterity and intelligence (discussed in a prior post), may be as unsettling as they are amazing.  Surely future developments will be disruptive and challenging in a wide variety of circumstances, many of which cannot even be anticipated.

How will the Jewish community react when an artificial entity is created that not only looks human, but is thoroughly versed in all things Jewish? Will the Jewdroid’s presence be too much to bear or is Judaism’s tent big enough to hold him too? Shall we reject the Jewdroid whose existence is unprecedented or shall we welcome the stranger? What assumptions and values shall inform us? Let’s look at some objections to a proposed Jewdroid.

The first, and most trivial argument, is that based on appearance: the droid does not “look Jewish.” A similar objection was raised against the Bulbas at William Tenn’s imagined interstellar Neo-Zionist convention. Whether coming from Jews or non-Jews, that line assumes that there is such a thing as a Jewish “look.” Whether there ever was a “look” is doubtful, but today any argument based on a presumed Jewish look involving a distinctive set of physical traits shared by all Jews is not only obnoxious, it is contrary to the evidence of the varieties of contemporary Jewry. In the world in which we live, Jews come in many shades, shapes and sizes, each with a wide range of physical features. Why, there are even Ginger Jews! Looks alone cannot compel a conclusion that our Jewdroid either can or cannot be Jewish. Our droid could come in any hue and be a Jew.  read more

When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 1)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 @ 10:09 AM
posted by Roger Price

 

 

 

Credit: Jewish Museum Berlin

In a short story written expressly for inclusion in a groundbreaking anthology of Jewish science fiction and fantasy, Wandering Stars (Jewish Lights, 1974), the British writer William Tenn imagined a future galaxy populated with Jews who, consistent with their ancestors’ history, traveled far and wide in search of a better life. Among these Jews, or at least creatures who claimed to be Jews, was a certain group of small, brown pillow shaped beings covered with grey spots out of which protruded tentacles. Residents of the fourth planet in the Rigel star system (Rigel being a star in the Orion constellation as seen from Earth), they claimed to be Jewish by descent from a community of Orthodox Jews who lived in and around Paramus, New Jersey. Their non-human appearance was the result, they said, of natural relationships, over time, with the native inhabitants of their new planet. In Tenn’s tale, the Bulbas, as they were known, traveled to Venus in the year 2859 C.E. in order to participate in the First Interstellar Neo-Zionist Convention which was convened for the purpose of discussing a renewed claim to Israel, an area on Earth then free of all Jews. The question presented was whether the Bulbas could be accredited as Jews.

While set some eight centuries in the future, Tenn’s story asked age old questions about the nature of Jewishness. And if the context of the story seems far ahead of our times, the reality is that the pace of discovery regarding potential life on other planets continues to accelerate. After all, the existence of the first exoplanet, that is, a planet that is outside of our solar system and orbits its own host star, was not confirmed until 1995. Today we have identified over 3,300 such planets. The first exoplanet in a habitable zone was not found until 2010. Today we know of at least 49 such planets.  In 2014, the first Earth sized exoplanet in a habitable zone was discovered.  Within the past couple of months, we have found a potentially habitable exoplanet in the star system closest to Earth, that of Proxima Centauri.

At a distance of just over 4.2 light years from Earth, though, Proxima Centauri is still almost 25 trillion miles away. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, traveling over 36,000 miles per hour, would still need over 78,000 years to reach it. Obviously Earth bound readers of this essay will not be alive when the first probe to Proxima Centauri reports its findings. But dramatic advances in technology are raising the issue of Jewishness in yet another context. If the claim of the geographically distant Bulbas, who did not resemble our species in the slightest, was challenging, how will we consider the Jewishness of an android, a robot designed to look like us, and programmed with considerable intelligence, artificial though it may be?  read more

Jews, Judaism and Genetically Modified Crops

Sunday, February 28, 2016 @ 10:02 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: USDA

Genetically modified (“GM”) crops are plant products which have been genetically altered for certain traits. Such traits include resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, herbicides and drought, as well as aspects of product quality like improved yield, nutritional value and longer shelf life.  (See here and here.)

The characterization is somewhat of a misnomer. Modification of biological organisms is not a new process. It has been occurring in nature for billions of years. Indeed, the natural selection of some traits over others is the driving force of biological evolution, the process by which a species over time secures a competitive advantage in its environment. Today, though, the label of GM foods is meant to identify those products that have been modified or engineered by human means.

And yet, the intervention of humans in an otherwise natural process is not new either. Humans have been actively engaged in plant breeding for up to ten thousand years. An Assyrian relief, dated to 870 BCE, illustrates pollination of date palms by man.

Similarly, the Torah tells of Jacob manipulating his flocks of goats and lambs so that he would increase his herd with the fittest among them. (See Gen. 30:31-31:13.)That the author ambiguously attributed Jacob’s success to both magical sticks and God’s miraculous power is irrelevant, for present purposes. What is important is that the story is testament to the reality that at least since the text was written some twenty-five centuries ago, humans have recognized the desirability of and have sought to guide the alteration of existing species in ways thought beneficial. This guided intervention has produced a host of useful and now common food products, but it is, or was, slow, unpredictable, unreliable, costly and inefficient. read more

In the Beginning and In the End

Thursday, October 15, 2015 @ 02:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

When the cosmos was about to be created — the fundamental forces of nature being unified in an exceedingly hot, dense point and galaxies, stars, planets, even stable matter itself yet unformed — there was no recognizable space, no measurable time. There was no darkness over the surface of the deep because there was no deep, no surface, no over and no under. No wind hovered over any water, as there was not yet any hydrogen or oxygen, much less any combination of them in the form of water. And there was no wind, either. What there was — all that there was — was chaotic, pulsating Potential.

At some moment, for reasons yet unclear, what was began to change into what is. Gravity separated first from the combined strong nuclear and electroweak forces. Then the strong force emerged and the electroweak force devolved into the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force. The nascent universe, still small and unbelievably hot and turbulent, was an ever changing soup of energy and sub-atomic particles. It was all good, and about to become better.

Within one second from the mystery of beginning, our mini-universe inflated, and then started to expand. Its temperature dropped from an unfathomably hot state of 100 nonillion degrees Kelvin to only one trillion degrees, but that relative cooling was sufficient for sub-atomic particles to become protons and neutrons and other heavier particles. At the three minute mark, with the temperature now down to a cool billion degrees, particles fused into atomic nuclei, mostly hydrogen nuclei, some helium nuclei and other kinds as well. This, too, was good. read more

Exploring Prayer: A Conversation with Alden Solovy

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 @ 10:07 AM
posted by Roger Price

Alden Solovy is a poet and liturgist. A native of Chicago, Illinois, Alden made aliyah to Israel in 2012. His first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, was published in 2012 by Kavanot Press. He is currently working on a mythical journey, told with prayers and poetry, called Song of the Spiritual Traveler, as well as two new anthologies. This year Alden will also be the Liturgist-In-Residence for the National Havurah Committee’s 2015 Summer Institute. His prayers and additional biographical information are available at www.tobendlight.com

This conversation was conducted electronically and is offered as part of this forum’s mission to explore issues of fact, fiction and faith. We appreciate Alden’s willingness to participate.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

JudSciGuy: How did Alden Solovy, who holds an M.B.A. degree in economics and finance from the University of Chicago, get involved in writing prayers?

Alden: Composing prayers was a natural expression of my yearning to move closer to God. In response to various life tragedies I began a spiritual journey of prayer, meditation, daily journaling and writing gratitude lists. The writing evolved into a practice of composing prayers. The practice was a large part of my healing process from those tragedies, including the loss Ami z”l – my wife of 27 years – from catastrophic brain damage, which I discuss in detail in my first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing. read more

Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science

Monday, June 22, 2015 @ 11:06 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Yale

In response to a theoretical physicist’s article regarding developments in cosmology and the then current debate about whether the universe had a finite age or was in a steady state without beginning or end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, initiated a brief but revealing correspondence. The correspondence was prompted by Schneerson’s deep concern over what he considered to be widespread misconceptions about science and his perceived urgent need to correct those misunderstandings. In this correspondence, Schneerson demonstrated an expected devotion to the text of the Torah and traditions relating to it, but also a certain and perhaps unexpected awareness of technical issues, for instance whether light was an electro-magnetic wave or “corpuscular” or both. More importantly, in the course of the correspondence, he articulated his approach to faith and science and what some asserted was a conflict between them.

Schneerson thought the purported conflict was the result of a misconception of the nature of science. The “sciences,” he said, “are at bottom nothing more than assumptions, work hypotheses and theories which are only ‘probable’ . . . .”  By contrast, he viewed “religious truths” as “definitive and categorical.” Consequently, science could not challenge religion because “science can never speak in terms of absolute truth.”  read more

Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai? (Part II)

Sunday, January 4, 2015 @ 02:01 PM
posted by Roger Price

The idea that 3300 years ago, at Sinai, God gave Moses a Torah identical to the Torah we have today is a powerful concept, one that still resonates. But is it probable, even plausible?

Previously, to explore this idea, we have taken the text of the Torah as we have it today and looked at issues of content, language and script. We have already found that the Torah we have not only makes no claim as to its original content, but that internal evidence from the Tanakh strongly suggests that whatever Moses may have written and conveyed at the end of his life was limited in scope. Moreover, external evidence from archeological and other sources indicates that Moses’s sefer haTorah was not written in either the language or the script that a contemporary Torah is. In this post, we look at the transmission of a presumed original Torah, focusing on security for the object and textual variations.

Securing the transmission of the originally inscribed text

Let’s start with the medium of Moses’s inscription of the sefer haTorah that our Torah says Moses wrote just before he died (see Deut. 31:9, 24-26) and the security afforded the resulting work. Our Torah does not say precisely whether Moses chiseled the words into stone, wrote them with a stylus in wet clay or used a quill on parchment or papyrus.  If the entire Torah as we know it was inscribed on stone or clay tablets, there must have been many of them to include almost 80,000 words containing over 300,000 letters. If one or more scrolls were used, the material involved must have been sizable as well. In any event, it is certainly hard to imagine the 120 year old Moses chiseling, pressing or writing that much text as he was about to die.  read more

A Nice Jewish Shot: Why Vaccinations are Kosher and Required

Thursday, June 19, 2014 @ 09:06 PM
posted by Roger Price

Let’s face it. Sometimes you can deny certain established scientific truths and it does not make much difference. You can, for instance, believe that the Earth was created about 6,000 years ago and life as we know it will still go on. OK, maybe Jon Stewart and certain professors and pundits will make fun of you, but as the little redhead Annie always reminds us, “the sun’ll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar, that tomorrow there’ll be sun.”

If, however, you deny the safety and efficacy of approved medical vaccinations designed to prevent harmful, debilitating, even deadly diseases, such as polio, measles, hepatitis and tetanus, your belief may well make a great deal of difference to you, your family, your community and, indeed, all of humanity.

And yet, there are those who for a variety of reasons refuse to inoculate themselves or their children, or both, even when established governmental authorities require such action. While it is tempting to stereotype all such persons as undereducated or acting out of ignorance, some are not. Aside from the rare situations based on the medical condition of the child, some people object to a particular vaccine or procedure.  Others have broader religious, philosophical and personal beliefs that militate against inoculations. (See, e.g., here and here.) Some even may be part of an otherwise socially conscious community. read more